I’ve been sleeping on the “Science Comics” collection from First Second. Each exploring a topic in a comprehensive but light-hearted way, they’re fun reads, and could easily become a mainstay of this column. First up is “Flying Machines”, which does exactly what it says on the tin: explore the history of flight, from the innovations of the Wright brothers all the way to jet engines.
Written by Alison Wilgus
Illustrated by Molly Brooks
Follow the famous aviators from their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, to the fields of North Carolina where they were to make their famous flights. In an era of dirigibles and hot air balloons, the Wright Brothers were among the first innovators of heavier than air flight. But in the hotly competitive international race toward flight, Orville and Wilbur were up against a lot more than bad weather. Mechanical failures, lack of information, and even other aviators complicated the Wright Brothers’ journey. Though they weren’t as wealthy as their European counterparts, their impressive achievements demanded attention on the international stage. Thanks to their carefully recorded experiments and a healthy dash of bravery, the Wright Brothers’ flying machines took off.
This breezy trip through the history of flight is narrated by the Wright brothers’ sister, Katharine. A teacher and later a sort of PR director for her brothers, she was the only one in their family to graduate from college, and makes an excellent guide through our story. She’s garrulous and unstoppable, leaping from panel to panel to explain, contextualize, break down, or even ridicule, the ideas at hand.
Naturally, the narrative follows the Wright brothers closely, with Katharine taking us front and center to the debates that had them dismantling the concepts of fellow aviators – who, it turns out, were relying on bad math, and a general lack of empirical evidence. She takes us through her brothers’ use of the wind tunnel, and then on through some catastrophic test flights, comparing and contrasting their ideas with the generally accepted ones of the time – that heavier-than-air flight was unlikely, and dirigibles represented the way of the future.
The story is at its most engaging at these moments, when practical concepts are illustrated and explicated with clarity, and the results are evident in the brothers’ latest improvements. From these, the tension of the narrative ramps up; nobody will take the brothers seriously, or believe their claims, even as they move miles ahead of the competition.
You might remember Molly Brooks – and her windswept art style – from “Post”, a short comic that packed a lot of verve. In “Flying Machines”, the same mastery of camera angle and perspective takes us straight into the world of the Wright brothers, scooting us in close as a debate unfolds in a living room.
The characterizations are deft; the figures are angular and agile, getting across meaning with small gestures, like how tightly Wilbur grabs his elbows when he crosses his arms. The faces are minimal but mobile, and well-differentiated despite all the mustaches.
Katharine Wright, meanwhile, has a big presence to match her big voice – she clutches at her hat, clasps her hands, covers her face in exasperation, and generally never seems to be at rest.
For the more rigorous sections, where concepts are explained – usually with Katharine Wright interviewing the subject – the background falls away, and the two figures converse while surrounded by diagrams. These sections are, naturally, text-heavy, but despite a lack of panel borders, the conversations flow easily, with the lettering guiding us from one point to the next.
The technical drawings – as they progress from kite to glider to aircraft to jet engine – are lucid as well as gorgeous, highlighting the crucial developments that made flight not only possible, but practical.
I think we all imagine the history of flight in sepia tones, and Brooks’ coloring reflects this, contrasting earthy yellowy tones with blueprint blues. It’s a bright, fresh, high-contrast look, and it reinforces the energy and forward movement of the story.
As we pass from the brothers to Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine, the narrative is more fractured and a little less engaging – there’s so much happening at once, historically, and Frank as a character, while interesting, is somewhat less charismatic. Still, the storyline engages, sketching out further improvements to aviation that took us to where we are today.Continued below
The book closes out with short bios of other pioneers of aviation, exploring the links between them, and then fills in some detail on Katharine Wright herself. It’s an appreciated dose of perspective that lights the way for further learning.
Overall, “Flying Machines” is a lively but informative read, compressing swaths of history into interesting chunks and taking care to describe central concepts with brevity and clarity. And while it appears to have been written to, roughly, a fifth-grade level, it’s enjoyable for an older audience as well, particularly if you’ve got an interest in the history of science and technology.